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Michigan’s Simmons gets into groove down the stretch

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — For grad transfer Jaaron Simmons, it’s all starting to sink in.

From Michigan’s concepts and terminology to defensive schemes and complex offensive plays, Simmons has been focused on learning every single detail.

And while it’s taken some time, everything is finally starting to become second-nature for Simmons, who played 12 minutes off the bench and a key first-half role in Michigan’s 74-59 win over Iowa Wednesday at Crisler Center.

“It feels good but it’s the same thing — just got to keep working every day, continue to prepare myself every day and that’s really it,” said Simmons, who was promoted to the blue team in practice following Sunday’s win at Wisconsin.

“I know more of what we’re doing. At the beginning of the season it was very challenging because you’re going out there and you’re thinking a lot because I’m learning new stuff every single day. Now I’m starting to get it. Now I don’t have to think what play we call, what I got to do. Now it’s more like, ‘All right, we got to run this,’ and I can flow into it.”

After Iowa took an early 7-0 lead and sophomore guard Zavier Simpson turned the ball over twice in the first two minutes of the game against the Hawkeyes’ zone defense, Michigan coach John Beilein opted to sub Simmons in for Simpson at the 17:22 mark.

With Simmons at the point, Michigan began to push the pace and used a 19-7 run to take a five-point lead with 10:48 left in the first half. Simmons showed flashes — both good and bad — with a 3-pointer and an extra pass that led to an open 3-pointer for Moritz Wagner sandwiched around a turnover on an errant pass off a defender’s leg on a 3-on-1 fast-break. He also added a steal and fast-break layup.

By the time Simmons checked out at the 9:06 mark, Michigan went from trailing by seven to leading by three.

“We’re the anti-turnover team. So, that’s the fly in the ointment we’re trying to sort through and that zone was so big,” Beilein said. “I didn’t know if Zavier or he could see over it but if they went man, I was going to put (Zavier) back in if I needed to.

“(Simmons) has really played well in practice and I like that he goes downhill, he sees the floor really well and there’s a reason why we had so many assists over the last couple years. He didn’t play as much as I probably should’ve played him but where they were in that zone the first 30 minutes, I prefer to have another shooter out there at that time. We went big a little while with guards and I think it really worked well.”

For Simmons, it’s the first time since Michigan was in the Maui Invitational in November that he’s received at least 10 minutes in back-to-back games.

He played 10 minutes in Sunday’s win at Wisconsin and finished with three points, a rebound and a turnover. Against Iowa, he finished with five points, four assists, two rebounds, a steal and a turnover.

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Senior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said he sees Simmons growing every day in practice and noted how difficult it is to take on a completely different role all while learning Michigan’s intricate offense.

“I think he’s been handling it well. Not a lot of guys can go through what he’s been through,” Abdur-Rahkman said. “Being the top player in the (Mid-American Conference) and having such success there and not having the time that he would like, it’s tough. But you don’t see it on his face, in his attitude or how he treats anybody on the team.”

And no one ever will. Because in the end, Simmons said, getting the chance to learn and be exposed to Beilein’s system is the reason that brought him to Michigan.

“I just focus on what I can do better. I don’t worry about what coach is doing or what other players are doing,” Simmons said. “I just focus on myself, focus on getting better each and every day and never ask, ‘Why?’ Why am I not playing or why am I not doing this? It’s just how can I get better and how can I put myself in position to get out there?”

Livers’ return

Freshman forward Isaiah Livers returned to the starting lineup after suffering an ankle injury early in last week’s loss at Northwestern and sitting out Sunday’s game at Wisconsin.

Livers wore a small brace on his left ankle and finished with three points on 1-for-3 shooting, two rebounds, an assist and a block in 21 minutes.

Beilein said he didn’t think Iowa’s zone was a great matchup for Livers offensively but noted he was able to do enough defensively, particularly on Iowa forward Tyler Cook, to prevent fifth-year senior forward Duncan Robinson from getting worn out.

“We learned that with some of our players when Zak Irvin was guarding (Purdue’s) Caleb Swanigan, it was hard to think he could make shots down the stretch,” Beilein said. “I don’t know how many minutes he had, but it gave Duncan time to rest and go over and play the three man so he’s not in a wrestling match the whole time with Cook. That’s just key to have that and that stat doesn’t come up.”

Beilein said with a day off on Thursday, he expects Livers to be “100 percent going forward.”

Slam dunks

Michigan became just the third team this season to hold Iowa to under 60 points, joining Virginia Tech (55 points on Nov. 28) and Penn State (58 points on Feb. 3).

Entering Wednesday’s matchup, the Hawkeyes had scored at least 84 points in four of their previous six games.

“We practiced a lot on a lot of the curl actions they had, which they got us on a couple times in the second half,” Simmons said. “We just locked in on defense. We knew not to take them lightly because they average like 80 points a game. We were ready.”

…Michigan recorded its 10th Big Ten win for the third straight season and reached double-digit conference victories for the sixth time in seven seasons.

With games remaining against Ohio State, at Penn State and at Maryland, the Wolverines still have a chance to reach 13 conference wins in a season for the first time since 2013-14.

“It’s such a tough conference. It’s hard to do and just winning on the road is what you’re proudest of, that we can get those three road wins in the league,” Beilein said. “We got two more opportunities to get another one and if you could ever be close to .500 in the league and then protect like we did today, you could have a heck of a year.”

…All of Michigan’s players wore pink Jordans against Iowa for breast cancer awareness.